Edward Heath changed the lives of the British people as fundamentally as any politician since Winston Churchill. As President of the Board of Trade in 1963, he forced through the abolition of Resale Price Maintenance, clearing the way for the all-conquering march of the supermarket and transforming every high street in the land.
As Prime Minister he secured Britain’s entry into Europe, reversed almost a thousand years of history and embarked on a course that would inevitably lead to the legal, political, economic and social transformation of his country. Both these reforms he forced through by a combination of determination, patience and persuasive powers, against the inertia or active hostility of a large part of the population, including many members of his own Party. There may have been others who could have done as much, there were certainly others who desired to do so, but it is hard to think of any other individual in the second half of the twentieth century who would both have been able and have wished to do what he did.
Yet Heath today is largely forgotten: a meaner beauty of the night eclipsed by the refulgent moon of Margaret Thatcher. This is because, in spite of all he did, he was seen by others as a loser. Lady Thatcher, though she too was ship-wrecked in the end, is remembered as a winner. It is the winners who remain prominent in people’s minds.
And he was a loser. Mainly though bad luck, though also by political ineptitude, he forfeited the confidence of the country and his Party and lost an election which almost everyone had believed he was bound to win. The elaborate and rigid legislation to regulate the trade unions, which had been painstakingly perfected in opposition, proved not to work in practice and only served to alienate a group which Heath was in fact anxious to conciliate. His zest for economic growth fed inflation at a time when a world-wide surge in commodity prices was anyway sending the cost of living soaring. To combat this he resorted to a strict statutory control of prices and wages which seemed both ill-conceived and supremely un-conservative to a large and vociferous section of the Tory Party. Even then he might have got away with it if he had not twice found himself having to confront the miners’ union, which demanded pay increases far beyond anything the Government felt reasonable. On the first occasion the Government surrendered; they felt that they could not afford to do so a second time. Still, victory was possible, but the miners’ strike coincided with the Yom Kippur war, a consequent shortfall in oil supplies and a dramatic increase in its cost. Suddenly the miners, who had feared they might be losing, found that after all they had the winning cards in their hand.
‘Who governs Britain?’ had been the question Heath put to the electorate in the election of February 1974.
‘Clearly, not you,’ had been the discomfiting response. In fact the Conservatives gained more votes than Labour, but Labour was left with the most seats in the House of Commons. In the circumstances, Heath’s attempt to cobble up a coalition with the Liberals was perfectly defensible but, in the view even of many of his own supporters, it showed not merely that he was a loser but that he was an ungracious loser to boot. From that moment his tenure of the leadership of the Conservative Party was doomed to end, and to end in tears.
He had brought it on himself, but his clarity of mind, his determination, his integrity, his keen social conscience, his political and moral courage, deserved better things. He would never have been among the best-loved of British Prime Ministers but, if the cards had fallen differently, he might have been remembered among the greatest.
Philip Ziegler, one of Britain’s leading biographers, is writing the official life of Edward Heath which will be published next year.
Philip’s post is part of Conservative History Week on the Blue Blog. There will be posts every day on various aspects of the history of the Party, to coincide with the launch of the new history section